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jews and words
By AMOS OZ FANIA OZ-SALZBERGER
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger
All right reserved.
In two and thirty most occult and wonderful paths of wisdom did the Lord of Hosts engrave his name: God of the armies of Israel, ever-living God, merciful and gracious, sublime, dwelling on high, who inhabiteth eternity. He created this universe by the three SepharimNumber, Writing, and Speech. Ten are the numbers, as are the Sephiroth, and twenty-two the letters, these are the Foundation of all things.
JEWISH CONTINUITY HAS always hinged on uttered and written words, on an expanding maze of interpretations, debates, and disagreements, and on a unique human rapport. In synagogue, at school, and most of all in the home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation.
Ours is not a bloodline but a textline. There is a tangible sense in which Abraham and Sarah, Rabban Yohanan, Glikl of Hameln, and the present authors all belong to the same family tree. Such continuity has recently been disputed: there was no such thing as a "Jewish nation," we are told, before modern ideologues deviously dreamed it up. Well, we disagree. Not because we are nationalists. One purpose of this book is to reclaim our ancestry, but another is to explain what kind of ancestry, in our view, is worth the effort of reclaiming.
We are not about stones, clans, or chromosomes. You don't have to be an archeologist, an anthropologist, or a geneticist to trace and substantiate the Jewish continuum. You don't have to be an observant Jew. You don't have to be a Jew. Or, for that matter, an anti-Semite. All you have to be is a reader.
In his wonderful poem "The Jews," the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:
The Jews are not a historical people
And not even an archeological people, the Jews
Are a geological people with rifts
And collapses and strata and blazing lava.
Their annals must be measured
On the scale of a different measurement.
A geological people: this unique metaphor may speak a deep truth about other nations, too. It need not be only about the Jews. But it resonates very powerfully for us when we reflect on Jewish continuity as primarily textual. The "historical," ethnic, genetic Jewish nationhood is a tale of rift and calamity. It is a landscape of geological disaster. Can we claim a biological pedigree dating, say, to Roman-era Galilean Jews? We doubt it. So much blood of both converts and enemies, of emblematic Khazars and Cossacks, might be flowing in our veins. On the other hand, geneticists today seem to tell us that some of our genes have been on the ride with us for a while.
This is interesting. But totally beside our point.
There is a lineage. Our annals can be gauged, our history told. But our "scale of a different measurement" is made of words. That is what this book is about.
At this early stage we need to say loud and clear what kind of Jews we are. Both of us are secular Jewish Israelis. This self-definition carries several significances. First, we do not believe in God. Second, Hebrew is our mother tongue. Third, our Jewish identity is not faith-powered. We have been reading Hebrew and non-Hebrew Jewish texts all our lives; they are our cultural and intellectual gateways to the world. Yet there is not a religious bone in our bodies. Fourth, we now live in a cultural climatein the modern and secular part of Israeli societythat increasingly identifies Bible quoting, Talmudic reference, and even a mere interest in the Jewish past, as a politically colored inclination, at best atavistic, at worst nationalist and triumphalist. This current liberal withdrawal from most things Jewish has many reasons, some of them understandable; but it is misguided.
What does secularism mean to Israeli Jews? Evidently more than it means to other modern nonbelievers. From nineteenth-century Haskalah thinkers to latter-day Hebrew authors, Jewish secularity has furnished an ever-growing bookshelf and an ever-expanding space for creative thought. Here is just one nutshell, from an essay titled "The Courage to Be Secular" by Yizhar Smilansky, the great Israeli writer who signed his books with the pseudonym Samech Yizhar:
Secularism is not permissiveness, nor is it lawless chaos. It does not reject tradition, and it does not turn its back on culture, its impact and its successes. Such accusations are little more than cheap demagoguery. Secularism is a different understanding of man and the world, a non-religious understanding. Man may very well feel the need, from time to time, to search for God. The nature of that search is unimportant. There are no ready-made answers, or ready-made indulgences, pre-packaged and ready to use. And the answers themselves are traps: give up your freedom in order to gain tranquility. God's name is tranquility. But the tranquility will dissipate and freedom will be wasted. What then?
Self-conscious seculars seek not tranquility but intellectual restlessness, and love questions better than answers. To secular Jews like ourselves, the Hebrew Bible is a magnificent human creation. Solely human. We love it and we question it.
Some modern archeologists tell us that the scriptural Israelite kingdom was an insignificant dwarf in terms of material culture. For example, the biblical portrayal of Solomon's great edifices is a later political fabrication. Other scholars cast doubt on all manner of continuity between ancient Hebrews and present-day Jews. Perhaps this is what Amichai meant when he said we are "not even an archaeological people." But each of these scholarly approaches, whether factually right or wrong, is simply irrelevant for readers like us. Our kind of Bible requires neither divine origin nor material proof, and our claim to it has nothing to do with our chromosomes.
The Tanach, the Bible in its original Hebrew, is breathtaking. Do we "understand" it to the last syllable? Obviously not. Even proficient speakers of Modern Hebrew probably misconstrue the original meanings of many biblical words, because their role in our vocabulary differs significantly from what they stood for in Ancient Hebrew. Take this exquisite image from Psalms 104:17, "Wherein the birds make their nests, hassida broshim beiyta." To a present-day Israeli ear, these three words mean "the stork makes its home in the cypress trees." Makes you reflect, by the way, on the winsome frugality of Ancient Hebrew, which can often pull off a three-word phrase that requires three times that number in English translation. And how colorful and flavorful is each of the three words, all nouns, brimming with meaning! Anyway, back to our main point. You see, in Israel today storks don't make their homes on cypresses. Storks very rarely nest here anyhow, and when they settle down in their thousands for a night's rest en route to Europe or to Africa, those needle-shaped cypresses are not their obvious choice.
So we must be getting it wrong; either the hassida is not a stork, or the brosh is not a cypress. Never mind. The phrase is lovely, and we know it is about a tree and a bird, part of a great praise for God's creation, orif you preferfor the beauty of nature. Psalm 104 gives its Hebrew reader the broad imagery, the dense and fine-tuned delight that might be compared to the magic of a Walt Whitman poem. We don't know whether it does the same in translation.
The Bible is thus outliving its status as a holy writ. Its splendor as literature transcends both scientific dissection and devotional reading. It moves and excites in ways comparable to the great literary oeuvres, sometimes Homer, sometimes Shakespeare, sometimes Dostoevsky. But its historical leverage is different from that of these opuses. Granted that other great poems may have inaugurated religions, no other work of literature so effectively carved a legal codex, so convincingly laid out a social ethic.
It is also, of course, a book that gave birth to innumerable other books. As though the Bible itself harked and heeded the command it attributes to God, "go forth and multiply." So even if the scientists and critics are right, and ancient Israel erected no palaces and witnessed no miracles, its literary output is both palatial and miraculous. We mean this in a wholly secular sense.
But let us check and balance. We have many loving things to say about Jewish specificities, but this book is emphatically not intended to be a celebration of separatism or superiority. Jewish culture was never impenetrable to non-Jewish inspiration. Even when it snubbed foreign trends, it often quietly endorsed them. To us, Tolstoy is as giant a pillar as Agnon, and Bashevis Singer does not trump Thomas Mann. There is much that we cherish in "gentile" literature and quite a bit that we dislike in Jewish traditions. Many of the scriptures, including the Bible at its most eloquent, flaunt opinions we cannot fathom and set rules we cannot obey. All our books are fallible.
The Jewish model of intergenerational conversation merits close attention.
Ancient Hebrew texts are continually engaged with two crucial pairings: parent and child, teacher and pupil. These pairs are arguably more important, even more important, than woman and man. The word dor, generation, appears dozens of times in both Bible and Talmud. Both opuses love recounting chains of generations, harking from the distant past and pointing to the distant future. A great deal is said about the chain's most basic link, the Father and the Son. (Please be patient about mothers and about daughters; they too inhabit this book.) From Adam and Noah to the destruction of the Judean and Israelite kingdoms, the Bible zooms in and out on particular fathers and sons, most of whom belong to meticulously listed genealogies.
This is by no means unique. Many cultures, probably all cultures, possess patrofilial paradigms at the roots of their collective memory, mythology, ethos, and art. There is a universal context to the numerous biblical dramas of fathers and sons. These are the perennial tales of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, resemblance and dissimilarity, inheritance and disinheritance. Almost all societies have cherished the imperative of intergenerational storytelling. Almost all cultures have gloried the passing of the torch from old to young. It has always been a primary duty of human memoryfamilial, tribal, and later national.
But there is a Jewish twist to this universal imperative. "No ancient civilization," Mordecai Kaplan writes, "can offer a parallel comparable in intensity with Judaism's insistence upon teaching the young and inculcating in them the traditions and customs of their people." Is such a generalization fair to other ancient civilizations? We do not pretend to know or judge. But we do know that Jewish boys, by no means only the rich and privileged ones, were put in touch with the written word at a staggeringly young age.
Here is one astounding constant of Jewish history since (at least) Mishnaic times: every boy was expected to go to school from the age of three to the age of thirteen. This duty was imposed on male children and their parents, administered and often subsidized by the community. At school, often a tiny one-room, one-teacher, multiage affair, the boys studied Hebrewnot their mother tongue, and not a living language even in Talmudic timesat a level sufficient for both reading and writing. This ten-year study was unconditional, independent of class, pedigree, and means. Some boys surely dropped out prior to becoming a Bar Mitzvah, but few remained illiterate.
The secret was to teach them a great deal in their earliest years, and wisely pamper them with sweets to munch with their first alphabet. Where other cultures left boys in their mothers' care till they were old enough to pull a plough or wave a sword, Jews started acculturating their youngsters to the ancient narrative as soon as the tots could understand words, at two years old, and read them, often at the ripe age of three. Schooling, in short, began soon after weaning.
The Jewish twist also pertained to the vessel in which the ancient narrative was served up to the scions. Early in our history we began to depend on written texts. On books. The great story and its built-in imperatives passed from generation to generation on tablets, papyri, parchments, and paper. Today, as we write this book, the historian among us checks all our references on her iPad, and she cannot resist the sweet reflection that Jewish textuality, indeed all textuality, has come full circle. From tablet to tablet, from scroll to scroll.
This brings us to our second twain, the teacher and student. All bookish cultures are bound to generate them.
Who were our first Teacher and Pupil? Jewish tradition positions Moses as the teacher of all teachers; but neither Aaron nor Joshua, later tagged as Moses' students, behaves like a student. Nor do they become great teachers. We therefore pinpoint the earliest teacher-student couplet with Eli the priest and his pupil Samuel the prophet. Note that Eli's two biological sons turned evil, whereas his spiritual son did exceedingly well. Therein lies a poignant truth: children can become a great disappointment, but a good pupil will seldom let you down.
Teacher and student, rabbi and talmid, are the mainstay of postbiblical Jewish literature up to modern times. It was an elective relationship"make a rabbi for yourself," the Mishnah tellingly instructsand thus unlike the biological father-and-son pairing in some ways, yet similar in many others. Rabbis were almost invariably venerated, of course, but students were often respected too. In the Talmud, a clever youngster's opinion sometimes prevailed over his master's. Famous rabbi-talmid couples, such as Hillel and Yohanan ben Zakai, or Akiva and Meir, demonstrate a deep truth of this relationship: love and admiration are laced with dispute, and so they ought to be. Disagreement, within reason, is the name of the game. A fine student is one who judiciously critiques his teacher, offering a fresh and better interpretation.
Rabbi and pupil were typically not an isolated pair. Students are expected to become teachers, forming sequences of scholarship across many generations. The Mishnaic locus classicus goes thus: "And Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and passed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and elders to prophets, and prophets passed it to the men of the Great Knesset."
This chain, Rachel Elior tells us, does injustice to the Israelite priests and Levites. They were the earliest scribes and teachers of the Torah. A geological rift occurred between their long tradition and the Second Temple sages, who sealed the written canon and forbade further additions to the scriptures, while at the same paving a new high road to the oral Torah. This term encompasses the numerous rabbinical discussions that eventually constituted the Mishnah and Talmud. They were supposed to have begun soon after the written Torah was given on Mount Sinai, but their practice and documentation probably ensued from the sealing of the Bible. A novel conversational model now developed, with free discussions, interpretations, and scholarly adventures to be heaped upon the canonized books. As the centuries passed, these exchanges too were put to parchment.
During the stormy era of the Second Temple a tension field arose between text-bound priests and creative, disputative sages. The sages, Elior says, formed a veritable democracy of debate and interpretation: an all-male democracy indeed, bound to the hierarchy of intellectual brilliance, but open to every Jewish man with a cerebral penchant, regardless of birth and status.
Note the unusual dynamic: not a simple oral-to-written lineage, but very early spoken or sung lore turned into very early written texts, which were subsequently expanded, edited, and finally sanctified, an act which opened a new era of creative conversation, eventually recorded in books. Jewish culture became highly adept in both spoken and written study. But its inbuilt tension between the innovative and the sacrosanctcrisscrossing the oral and the writtenhas survived to this day.
And so it went, onward to the Mishnah's sages, the Tannaim, passing their torch to the Talmud's Amoraim, the post-Talmudic Savoraim, the Geonim who flourished around 700 CE, the late-medieval Rishonim, and the early modern Acharonim. The latter term means "the last ones," and in early modern time Jewish orthodoxy indeed froze in its intellectual tracks, unable to renovate its own house. But Jewish non-orthodoxy kept the tradition in its own ways, steering its variegated courses between Moses and modernity. Linked together in this modern string of Jewish learning, openly and joyfully interacting with the non-Jewish world, fraught with frictions, plural of minds, this modern continuum incorporates Mendelssohn (the third great Moses after the prophet and Maimonides), Asher Ginzberg (better known as Ahad Ha'am), Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Mordecai Kaplan, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Yeshayahu Leibowitz. All of these thinkers still belong, by their own lights, to the great chain of Jewish scholarship, mythically and textually launched on Mount Sinai by Moses, the first teacher.
Farther away, no longer part of a self-professed chain, but with some learned rabbi or bookish mother or synagogue canticle still flickering on their biographical horizon, stand Heine and Freud, Marx and the Marx Brothers, Einstein and Arendt, Hermann Cohen and Derrida. We are listing them here not just because they were Jewishwe are not in the business of smug stocktakingbut because it is evident that these thinkers and artists were etched by something intimately and textually Jewish.
There is a third group. The modern "unchained" Jews have an ancestry of individuals who chose to cut themselves loose from the orthodox sequence of rabbinic scholarship, but not before it left some mark on them: Jesus, Josephus, Spinoza. As with our previous two groups, there are many, many more.
Excerpted from jews and words by AMOS OZ FANIA OZ-SALZBERGER Copyright © 2012 by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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